Niger Begins Voting in Presidential Run-Off despite Boycott

Voters in Niger cast ballots in the country's first-ever presidential run-off Sunday, with incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou on track for a second term as the opposition observed a boycott.

The election pits 64-year-old Issoufou, a former mining engineer nicknamed "the Lion", against jailed opposition leader Hama Amadou, 66, known as "the Phoenix" for his ability to make political comebacks.

Polling stations opened at 8:00am (0700 GMT) and were to close at 7:00pm (1800 GMT), with 7.5 million people eligible to vote in an election which the opposition has vowed to boycott.

At Lamartine school in the Bani-Zoumbou district of the capital Niamey, the first voter cast his ballot at around 8:20am, an AFP correspondent said.

"We have all the material and we have started the voting without opposition representatives present," said Mustapha Alio Mainassara, the official in charge of the polling station.

He said members of the electoral committee were present along with members of Issoufou's party but no-one representing the opposition, which did not send out any of its representatives.

Amadou has been forced to campaign from behind bars after being detained on November 14 on baby-trafficking charges he says are bogus and aimed at keeping him out of the race.

Just days before the vote, he was evacuated from prison and flown to Paris for medical treatment, with the government saying he was suffering from an unspecified "chronic ailment."

On Friday, Amadou's doctor said his condition was improving but he would have to remain under observation for "at least 10 days."

"His health is improving and currently his condition is not life-threatening," said Luc Karsenty, a doctor at the American Hospital in western Paris.

The situation has created tensions in a country which has only had a multi-party democracy since 1990 and where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 (1.80 euros) a day.

Issoufou, who is seeking a second term in office, took a solid lead with 48.4 percent in the initial vote on February 21, way ahead of Amadou, who scored 17.7 percent.

The opposition coalition alleged fraud in the first round, claiming "unfair treatment between the two candidates" and has vowed not to recognize the results of Sunday's vote.

"We are calling on people to stay at home," said Ousseini Salatou, spokesman for the COPA 2016 opposition coalition.

Religious groups, tribal leaders and trade unions have called for calm and dialogue.

The run-up to the first-round vote was marred by violence between supporters of the rival camps, the arrest of several leading political personalities and the government's announcement that it had foiled a coup bid.

During the campaign, Issoufou, who took office in 2011, repeatedly pledged to bring prosperity to the desolate but uranium-rich country and prevent further jihadist attacks in its vast remote northern deserts and from Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists to the south.

Just three days before the vote, Niger suffered two jihadist attacks -- one in the west claimed by Al-Qaeda's north African affiliate which killed three gendarmes and another by Boko Haram in which a senior army officer died.

Although Amadou, a former parliamentary speaker, backed Issoufou in 2011, he shifted into opposition in 2013.

His supporters accuse Issoufou's regime of bad governance, saying it has failed to eradicate poverty in the country.

But a clear-cut victory appears assured for Issoufou, who missed winning an absolute majority in the first round by just 75,000 votes.

He has managed to secure the support of former deputy cabinet head Ibrahim Yacouba and two other low polling candidates from the initial round.

Source: Agence France Presse

Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved.